The Common Good

The Next Stage in the Fight Against Torture

It is still hard to believe that the hopes we have nurtured in the Christian anti-torture movement would come to fruition -- and so early, and so comprehensively, as they did with President Obama's executive orders yesterday.

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My first article on the issue of torture was just about exactly three years ago, in the pages of Christianity Today. The Bush detainee policies had thrown off the moral gyroscopes of many people, perhaps especially evangelicals, with their so-often reflexive Republican and Bush loyalties. If President Bush had ordered or permitted something, it must be right. If anyone was opposed to it, they must be partisans, liberals, irrationalists, or heretics. CT wanted me to try to think through the issue biblically and theologically, and I did my best to do so. I argued that Christians could never support torture or cruelty in the name of national security. A few months later, Evangelicals for Human Rights was born as an organization, and later we produced "An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture," which helped change the terms of the debate and gained considerable mainstream evangelical support.

You would have thought we had argued that Jesus was not the Second Person of the Trinity from some of the criticism our work has received. A large number of evangelicals simply were unable to reflect on these issues in any coherently Christian way, so they just did ad hominem attacks. Others offered a defense or quasi-defense of torture (or, "enhanced interrogation techniques") in the name of Romans 13 and the just war theory. Some are still at it.

I wrote a paper recently in which I reviewed all of the various arguments made against the work of Evangelicals for Human Rights. I think that history will record how woefully un-Christian, how out of touch with anything approaching gospel values, that these arguments were. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I believe that some who carry the name of Christian teacher/minister/leader will face serious accounting before God for defending the cruel abuse of human beings made in God's image.

And I think that is the next stage of the torture fight: coming to grips, settling accounts, evaluating the religious, moral, and cultural meaning of the fact that not only did our government torture people, many Christians fully supported it. EHR and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture will continue to press for legislation codifying many of the principles and policies articulated yesterday by President Obama. We also support some kind of national inquiry, perhaps a Truth and Renunciation Committee, which will uncover everything that happened, and hear the voices of those who wrote the policies, implemented the policies, and suffered the policies. We need a total national repudiation of what occurred, and the development of a moral consensus in which we agree that national security will never again be purchased in this country at the cost of our 240-year-long rejection of torture and cruelty during wartime.

That's what needs to happen in Washington. But much needs to happen in the churches, parachurch organizations, and educational institutions bearing the name of Jesus Christ. We need ministers, professors, and organization heads to reflect on what it means that over half of evangelical Christians supported the use of torture even as late as summer 2008. We need them to think about their silence amidst this long-running national debate, and even in some cases their active, public support for extremes of mental and physical cruelty toward those in our custody.

Yes, as critics never tired of saying, there is plenty of torture in other parts of the world. Yes, much of it is worse than what our nation did. Yes, there is plenty of need to protest the torture that goes on elsewhere. But we live here. This is our country. This was done in our name. This was authorized by our leaders at the highest level. And most Christians were fine with it. THAT is our problem, and it's a big one.

Dr. David P. Gushee, is the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University and president of Evangelicals for Human Rights.

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